60th Anniversary of inaugural NHRP flight

Track of Hurricane Betsy 1956
Track of Hurricane Betsy 1956

On August 13, 1956, an Air Force B-50 made the first research flight of the National Hurricane Research Project (NHRP) into Hurricane Betsy.  The Project had been organized by the U.S. Weather Bureau in response to the devastating 1954 hurricane season.  Congress had authorized funding in August 1955, and the Project team had gathered at Morrison Field (now Palm Beach International Airport) in April of 1956.  The Air Force Hurricane Hunters had lent two weather reconnaissance B-50 aircraft and crews to the Project while the Air Force Cambridge Laboratory had lent its instrumented B-47 jet.

Betsy had first been detected as a Tropical Storm east of Barbados on August 9th by reconnaissance aircraft.  The storm rapidly intensified into a major hurricane before plowing through the Leeward Islands on the night of August 11th.  Somewhat weakened, Betsy then traversed Puerto Rico on the 12th, and moved over the Turks and Caicos Islands by early on the 13th.  After exiting the Bahamas, the hurricane recurved out to sea and dissipated over the North Atlantic.  During its rampage, Betsy killed 36 people and caused US$50 million in damage.

While Bestsy was over the Turks and Caicos Islands on Aug. 13th, the NHRP plane took off at 6:27 AM local time, and headed southeast to intercept the hurricane.  The flight encountered a ‘false eye’ on its initial pass into the system and descend to 10,000 feet at this point.  False eyes were a common artifact of weather radars at this time.  Gaps between radar echos some distance from the aircraft would appear to be round clear areas, resembling hurricane eyes.  Reconnaissance crews would only discover the deception once they reached the suspect area to find that it was not the eye they were seeking.

On this first run into the storm center, a power failure aboard the aircraft caused the radars and several other instruments to fail.  The flight continued with the cooperation of radar operators on the Caicos Islands vectoring the plane toward the true eye.  Although many measurements were not possible or were corrupted, Bob Simpson, as the flight meteorologist, decided to continue with the mission and recorded the eye penetrations with a hand-held 16mm movie camera.

The aircraft returned to West Palm Beach eight hours after take off.  Although there was little in the way of digitally recorded data from this flight, Simpson did make many observations of the cloud structure and wind field of the storm.  The crew for the flight was

  • Aircraft commander                       Capt. Elmer Drusba
  • Co-pilot                                              Maj. Robert Kerr
  • Meteorologist                                    Robert Simpson
  • Navigator                                           Lt. Alexander Falzon
  • Technician                                         George Black (Gen. Precision Lab.)
  • Technician                                         Theodore Caldwell (Gen. Precision Lab.)